I recently attacked my first novel, Irex, after some frank advice from a publisher.
Like all first-timers, I thought my finished novel was marvellous. Literary, philosophical, historically accurate, realistic, gripping and all that. I thought that, mainly because I was the only person who had read it.
The effusive, initial reports of immediate family and friends didn’t help to knock my thinking at all. Then I adventurously decided to let others read it by offering it for sale. The sudden rush of interest reinforced my beliefs even more. So I began sending the manuscript out to agents and publishers.
Like the small-town sports star who gets trialled at a major franchise, I soon got a resounding return to earth. Couched amid the standard “I don’t think you’re right for my list” were the seeds of doubt: “You write well, but…” – “have you considered a professional editing service” and other little gems which brought the realities of publishing in to prick the bubble of my imaginations.
This was surprising to me, because as far as I was concerned, I had edited it. I had beta readers who were fairly brutal in their opinions, and rewrote many of the set-pieces. I released a second edition with some improvements to the ending and other clarifications.
The final straw was a very honest letter that actually made me blush with shame – it was the kick I needed and I sat down with Irex, freed from my romantic attachment to it, and looking at it more like a wayward, overgrown tree that was threatening to bring down the house.
I slashed away at it like the famous villain in the story itself, ripping great lumps of it out with neither remorse nor mercy. Whole passages that I had agonised over for hours were deleted and discarded, others rewritten and unrecognisable. Dialogue was cut and quickened, descriptive passages mauled, and technical descriptions or historical asides brushed away and consigned to pixel heaven.
And after losing over 10% of its original wordage, I discovered it had much less philosophy, less historical colour and way less splashing water, with no more marlinspikes or halliards.
But like cutting away the undergrowth, I had much more prominent story and a more direct plot. And cruel editing taught me something very valuable.
If we aren’t here to tell stories, then why are we trying to write them?